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Remains Discovered in Parisian Chapel May Belong to Guillotined Aristocrats

New research suggests the bodies of nearly 500 nobles beheaded during the Reign of Terror are buried in Chapelle Expiatoire

More than 500 people guillotined during the French Revolution may have been buried in the walls of this 19th-century chapel. (Photo by Elise Hardy / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
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Historians have long believed that the remains of nearly 500 people guillotined during the French Revolution—including Maximilien Robespierre, engineer of the Reign of Terror—are buried in Paris’ catacombs.

But newly publicized research suggests these individuals may have been laid to rest elsewhere: namely, in the walls of Chapelle Expiatoire, a 19th-century chapel in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, reports Eric Le Mitouard for Le Parisien.

Many of the the deceased were aristocrats publicly beheaded between 1793 and 1794 in the Place de la Révolution, a huge public square now known as the Place de la Concorde. Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, and Olympe de Gouges, an influential early feminist writer and social reformer, are among those thought to be interred at the mass burial site.

In 2018, Chapelle Expiatoire’s administrator, Aymeric Peniguet de Stoutz, noticed that the walls in the lower chapel’s columns were strangely uneven, as though there were extra spaces between them. When archaeologist Philippe Charlier investigated the discrepancy by inserting a tiny camera through the stones in the walls, he discovered four large chests containing bones, reports Kim Willsher for the Guardian.

Further research on the findings was delayed, in part due to the Yellow Vest protests that erupted in Paris that year. Now, however, Peniguet de Stoutz tells Le Parisien that he has asked the regional directorate of cultural affairs to conduct excavations at the site beginning in 2021.

“I cried when the forensic pathologist assured me he had seen human phalange [feet and hand] bones in the photographs,” the administrator says, per a translation by the Guardian.

Louis XVIII built the Chapelle Expiatoire on the site of the Madeleine Cemetery where his brother Louis XVI and sister-in-law Marie Antoinette were once buried. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In his report, Charlier noted that the lower chapel contained four wooden ossuaries, or containers used to hold human remains.

“There is earth mixed with fragments of bones,” he wrote, as quoted by the Guardian.

Chapelle Expiatoire is located around a ten-minute walk from the Place de la Révolution. It was constructed on top of the former Madeleine Cemetery, which served as one of four officially designated burial sites for guillotine victims through 1794.

When Louis XVIII became king in 1814, he ordered the remains of his brother Louis XVI and sister-in-law Marie Antoinette removed from the Madeleine Cemetery and interred in the Saint-Denis Basilica, according to David Chazan of the Telegraph. The French monarch commissioned the Chapelle Expiatoire’s construction atop of the burial site in memory of the couple.

Previously, historians thought that the remains of other notable victims of the French Revolution were moved from the Madeleine Cemetery to another site and, finally, to the catacombs of Paris, where a plaque commemorates their burial. If confirmed, the newly detailed discovery would refute that narrative.

Peniguet de Stoutz cites evidence that Louis XVIII did not want the aristocrats’ bodies to be moved out of the building. In a letter, the king reportedly ordered that “no earth saturated with victims [of the revolution] be moved from the place for the building of the work.”

Speaking with Le Parisien, the chapel administrator says, “Until now, the chapel was thought to be solely a monument in memory of the royal family. But we’ve just discovered that it is also a necropolis of the revolution.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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